Replacing DeSean: Don’t sleep on Jeremy Maclin

Replacing DeSean: Don’t sleep on Jeremy Maclin

82 receptions, 1,332 yards receiving, nine touchdowns; that’s what the Philadelphia Eagles must replace in the NFL’s No. 2 offense after the release of DeSean Jackson. Where’s it supposed to come from? Not necessarily from any one player. In this four part series, we examine whose roles will increase as a result of the move.

Is it possible we’ve all forgotten how good Jeremy Maclin really is?

Up until last season, there was legitimate debate as to whether the 2009 first-round pick is actually a superior all-around wide receiver to DeSean Jackson. There was even some chatter that Maclin might be a better fit for Chip Kelly’s offense.

Then disaster struck. Maclin suffered a torn ACL early during the first full day of training camp. His season erased, the onus fell on Jackson to replace Maclin’s production.

In 2014, the shoe will be on the other foot. This time, Maclin is tasked with filling the void left by Jackson’s release.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand perfectly the concerns over hanging your hat on a No. 1 receiver coming off of knee surgery. And it is true that in the four seasons Maclin has been on the field for, he’s never managed to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving—although he has reached 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

Let’s take the second concern first, that Maclin hasn’t passed some magical statistical baseline that separates the No. 1s from the No. 2s. Before we start making excuses for the guy, let’s look back on his breakout season of 2010.

Among wideouts, Maclin’s 70 receptions ranked 19th. His 964 yards ranked 18th. 10 touchdowns were tied for 7th. 13 receptions of 20-plus yards, t-21st. 45 receptions for first down, 19th.

Those numbers would’ve been good enough to make him a No. 1 receiver on half the teams in the league. In Philly, he was always kind of viewed as 1b with Jackson around. This could be Maclin’s chance to step out of the three-time Pro Bowler’s shadow.

So what happened the next two seasons?

Health issues partially derailed his 2011 campaign. A mysterious illness—at one point thought to be lymphoma—had Maclin laid up for most of the offseason and would cause him to miss training camp. He was in uniform Week 1, but had lost weight and muscle mass in the meantime. An injury cost him three games later on as well.

All things considered, Maclin still posted a quality line with 63 receptions, 859 yards and five touchdowns. He was on pace to break 1,000 had he played all 16 games.

2012 wasn’t merely a disappointing season for Maclin. The Eagles finally bottomed out under Andy Reid, a 4-12 record resulting in the head coach’s firing after 14 years. The offense regressed as Jackson, All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy, starting quarterback Michael Vick and three members of the offensive line all missed extensive time due to injuries.

Maclin still finished with 69 receptions, 857 yards and seven touchdown catches in 15 games, making him Philadelphia’s leader in all three categories.

Those figures aren’t going to make anybody forget about Jackson anytime soon. Then again, there is plenty of reason to believe Maclin could revert to his 2010 form under Kelly, if not exceed his breakout season entirely.

Why? Because practically everybody wearing midnight green (minus 30-year-old Jason Avant) posted some form of career high in Kelly’s offense during the head coach's first season on the Eagles sideline.

Jackson’s 82 catches and 1,332 were by far personal bests. Riley Cooper went from being a reserve who was in danger of being cut in training camp to viable No. 2 receiver. Brent Celek’s 15.7 yards per catch were 2.6 yards better than his previous high. McCoy won his first his NFL rushing championship. Nick Foles came out of nowhere to lead the league in passer rating.

It stands to reason Maclin would benefit from Kelly’s presence, too. Without Jackson there to take away targets, he’ll certainly have more opportunity than ever.

And, no, Maclin does not need the extra attention Jackson draws from defenses on the opposite side to be successful. Sure, Maclin is not quite as dangerous of a deep threat—although DBs would be wise not to sleep on his 4.4 speed—but he’s posted big days when Jackson was inactive in the past.

In the five games Jackson missed in 2012—four with Foles under center—Maclin recorded 28 receptions, 353 yards and three touchdowns. Project those numbers over a full season, and they work out to 89, 1,129 and nine.

It’s safe to say that kind of volume would go a long way toward replacing Jackson’s production.

Of course, there is still the issue of Maclin’s ACL. The truth is we have no real way of knowing how he’ll respond. What we do know is torn ACLs are not the career death sentence they once were, and most NFL players seem to recover fully even after experiencing more than one.

The fact that Maclin will only turn 26 this year should offer some hope, along with the knowledge that he will be 13 months into his rehabilitation by the time the season begins.

The good news is, as we’ll explore further in the coming days, it’s not all on Maclin to supplant Jackson’s production. That being said, as long as Maclin is healthy, it’s not as if every one of those 82 catches, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns suddenly disappeared from the offense. In terms of pure numbers, the Eagles may not miss Jackson as much as we think.

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

For the first 40 yards of Josh Huff’s kick return touchdown on Sunday, he went untouched.

When he got to the Eagles’ 42-yard line, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was the only guy left in his way.

Huff ran through him.

“Yeah, I can’t let a kicker tackle me,” Huff said. “If he would have tackled me, I really would have been pissed at myself.”

The 170-pound Walsh couldn’t make the tackle and was sent spinning as Huff ran through. Fifty-six yards later, Huff took off from the 2-yard line, flipping into the end zone to give the Eagles their first lead in an eventual 21-10 win over the Vikings (see Instant Replay).

Huff said he knew he was scoring as soon as he saw that he had just the kicker to beat.

With the Eagles’ down 3-0 and with their offense sputtering through the first quarter and change, Huff’s play was a game-changer (see 10 Observations).

“Josh did a great job on the return,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “[Special teams coordinator] Dave Fipp really has those guys ready every single week. You need those things. You need special teams scores.”

After Wendell Smallwood’s kick return touchdown last week, this is the first time in franchise history the Eagles have had kick return touchdowns in back-to-back games. They also have the NFL’s only two kick return touchdowns of the season (see Standout Plays).

“It’s super cool,” Smallwood said. “Now teams have to pick their poison. They can’t go away from one. They can’t say they’re not going to kick to Smallwood, then they kick to Huff and he takes it. I think we’re going to get a lot of teams’ attention.”

Huff also had a role in the Eagles’ offense against the Vikings. He caught four passes for 39 yards, including two that picked up first downs. His 14-yarder in the third helped set up the touchdown that sealed the win for the Eagles.

This season hasn’t been great offensively for Huff. He is clearly the Eagles’ fourth wideout and came into Sunday with just eight catches for 24 yards.

“Obviously, I want to play good on offense, but we have three great guys in front of me,” Huff said. “I’m doing what I can to stay ready and I’m at my best when those guys do need me. At the end of the day, as long as I’m doing my job and as long as I stay ready, today was evident. Whenever they call my number, I’m going to make the most of my opportunities.”

Huff finished off his 98-yard kick return touchdown the same way he finished off his 41-yard receiving touchdown in New England last year: With a flip.

Huff took off from the 2-yard line and did a front flip, landing in the middle in the black end zone on his backside.

“It’s just something that happens,” Huff said. “Everybody says I should have stuck the landing, but I’m not a gymnast.”

Eagles' defense outplays Vikings' top-ranked unit

Eagles' defense outplays Vikings' top-ranked unit

The Eagles’ defense had two challenges on its mind Sunday. First, there was the challenge of outplaying Sam Bradford and the Vikings’ offense. Just as important was the challenge of outplaying the Vikings’ top-ranked defense.

“We wanted to be the better defense out there,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We wanted to match their intensity. That was the whole thing. That’s all we talked about — let’s be the best defense out there today. We wanted to make sure we were the most dominating defense in the game.

“We wanted to get more sacks, get more turnovers … that was our whole goal.”

In a clash of two of the NFL’s top defensive units, the Eagles beat the previously undefeated Vikings 21-10 Sunday at the Linc (see Instant Replay).

The Vikings defense was very good. It held the Eagles to 14 offensive points and forced four turnovers, but also had no sacks.

The Eagles’ defense was better. It held the Vikings to 10 offensive points, forced four turnovers and recorded six sacks.

If you watched this game and had to guess which defense is No. 1 in the NFL, you’d guess Eagles.

They were that dominating.

They outplayed the best defense in the game.

“We think we’re the best defense, but they’ve been playing great, and they were the best defense coming in,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said. “We knew it would come down to whichever defense played the best.

“You could see that the first quarter. We’d make a play, they’d make a play. But you’ve just got to keep on chopping. After the last two games, we wanted to get back to playing Eagles defense, and I feel like we did that.”

McLeod, linebacker Jordan Hicks, Connor Barwin and Graham led a ferocious defensive effort that saw the Eagles batter former teammate Sam Bradford, who absorbed his first loss as a Viking (see 10 Observations).

The Eagles sacked Bradford six times, intercepted him twice and mauled him snap after snap after snap. By the time the Vikings got in the end zone, with half a minute left, it was already a three-possession game.

Neither team had an offensive play longer than 29 yards.

“We think we’re the No. 1 defense in the league,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We think we can be that and should be that if we go out and play the way we’re supposed to.

“We have to do that every week. But we think we can hang with any defenses out there. And we have a lot of respect for that defense across the field, and we knew we would have to show up for us to even have a chance to be in this game. Because that defense is ranked No. 1 coming into this thing.

“But we also feel we’re the best defense in the league, even though we haven’t played like it. But this is the opportunity you want. On the main stage, you’re coming into our home, and this was our opportunity to face the best defense in the league, and I think we showed our worth.”

The Eagles, who looked nothing like a top defense the last two weeks in losses in Detroit and Washington, improved to 4-2 and dropped the Vikings to 5-1.

Six games in, the Eagles’ defense is allowing just 13.5 points per game. That’s No. 2 in the league, behind only … who else … the Vikings at 12.8 per game.

“For us, it’s a battle of the defenses,” Hicks said. “And we always want to be the best defense on the field and put our team in a position to win.”

Bradford has been sacked more only once in his career, back in 2011 with the Rams, when the Redskins got him seven times.

And after opening the season with no interceptions in four games, the Eagles picked him off twice.

Whatever it takes to get motivated. If it works, it works. And this Eagles' defense was clearly motivated by that No. 1 ranking the Vikings brought to town.

“It motivated everybody,” Fletcher Cox said. “We knew in order to win this game we had to be good up front, and the last two weeks we weren’t very good up front. But we got back to basics and went out and played a physical football game.”

Hicks had 11 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and two pass knockdowns in his finest game of the year. McLeod became the first Eagle since Quintin Mikell in 2007 with a sack, forced fumble and interception in the same game and added seven tackles. And Graham picked up his fourth sack to go with five quarterback hurries and a forced fumble (see Standout Plays).

The Eagles got back to the way they played defense the first three games of the season. They’ve now held their opponents to 14 or fewer points in four of six games and won them all. In their two losses, they’ve allowed 24 and 27.

“Pride … call it what you want, we knew we had to play well today,” Hicks said. “This defense has a certain standard, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else does, it matters what we do, and ultimately if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re going to be a top, top, top defense.

“For me, it’s not about them. It’s about us and what we do.”